Saturday, July 25, 2015

Children are Not All the Same

Woodrow Wilson -- future president of Princeton, author of numerous best-selling books, and possibly the greatest pedant ever to reach the heights of power in the U.S. -- did not read at all until he was 9, and could not read well until he was 11.

On the other hand Terry Tao, mathematics prodigy who went on to win the Fields Medal, taught himself to read at 2.

How to design a school system to accommodate the diverse abilities of millions of children is a problem of enormous magnitude, quite possibly beyond our ability to solve. But it seems to me that we need more flexibility, not more bureaucracy, no matter how well intentioned. The premise of No Child Left Behind and similar laws, that all children can learn the same things at the same ages, is simply wrong.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Like the Iraq War, "No Child Left Behind" is one of those things where the supporters of it never understood the underlying problems in the first place, and refuse to acknowledge that their chosen way of dealing with said problems is a colossal failure, and was always doomed to be.

There are plenty of competant and flexible educators out there, particularly in terms of actual teachers who typically get into the career because they actually deeply care about helping young people learn (it certain isn't for the pay and benefits!), but they're overwhelmingly blocked by school administrations with political agendas and gross incompetancies. There are just too many opinionated idiots without any real credentials in charge, sitting on school boards and spouting completely uninformed nonsense.

But even in the rare situations when that's not the case, there is still an institutional culture of self-preservation and aversion to taking risks, or making stands in defense of important educational values. The lack of flexibility and the prominence of bureaurcracy is the product of fear and a profound need for the people in charge to cover their asses.

There are untold numbers of parents willing to raise giant stinks and launch lawsuits against schools who get into an uproar at the thought that their children might be receiving different treatment than other children for any reason at all. Nevermind the needs and abilities of the individual children - if one child gets more (or even just different) attention compared to another, someone somewhere will instantly cry foul over it and demand "equal treatment".

Well, we've got equal treatment, and it doesn't work, and any sane person could have predicted that it wouldn't. But as I've said before, sanity is in short supply in this country, and the amount of outrage and legal action schools risk facing for daring to accomodate different needs is staggering. Even when the stars align and a school enjoys having both competant and passionate teachers and administrators who are willing to make necessary exceptions for the good of all the children in their care, they're always bound by the will of the hysterical mob.

The same sort of thinking is also the root cause of "Zero Tolerance" policies. A child gets beaten up by their hooligan of a classmate? The victim gets punished along with the bully, because they were "fighting" and zero tolerance means you never, ever make any exceptions of any kind, no matter how rational or sane. Schools act this way because they are terrified of appearing in any way "unfair". They're completely unwilling to exercise rational judgement of any kind, because they don't feel they can "take sides" without coming under massive amounts of fire - and they're not exactly wrong.